Friday, September 28, 2007

Stuff: Video killed (and skinned, and bled, and ate) the radio star.

The Believer, the lit crit and human interest rag spun off the pop-indie McSweeney's franchise, has an interesting profile of Arch Oboler: Skinning the Americans, by the wonderfully named Jason Boog. Clickee the link to get the teaser intro.

From 1936 to 1943, Oboler (on the left in the pic above) wrote and produced radio horror programs for the program Lights Out. While his name is no longer common currency among horror fans, no less a fright-figure than Stephen King called Oboler the "prime auteur" of radio horror. To get an idea of the sort of punch Oboler's radio dramas had, let me quote a bit of the article:

In the course of his research, [Kurt] Kuersteiner [radio historian and host of an online guide to radio horror shows] met a World War II vet who recalled listening to one of Oboler's most famous episodes during basic training . . . "It had just ended, late at night," Kuersteiner told me. "Just then, the power went on the base and the whole barracks freaked out. These weren't housewives reacting to War of the Worlds. These were battle-trained soldiers panicking when the power went down. It goes to show you how Oboler had the pulse of America back then.

Oboler tried to make the jump to film after television killed off the radio drama, but he never really made it. He helmed such forgettable oddities as Bwana Devil, a great white hunter pic that was the first 3-D feature film.

Through a comparison of Oboler's plots and scenes in modern horror flicks, especially the works of the so-called Splat Pack, Boog tries to make a case that Oboler is the father of that unique brand of extreme horror. I don't know if I buy all that Boog's selling, but he's done a great service in bringing Oboler's neglected work to light.

To hear some of Oboler's plays, check out Kuersteiner's wonderful site.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Movies: Official ANTSS 31 Greatest Horror Flicks of All Freakin' Time

Happy Birthday, you big ol' blog you. Today, we're going to let drop the Official ANTSS 31 Greatest Horror Flicks of All Freakin' Time. Bold it when you say it. And by "Greatest" I mean: I like them. And by "Of All Freakin' Time," I mean: as of this morning.

Look, we could ramble on about this, or, you know, we could just get to stepping.

I agree, Screamers and Screamettes. Let's go.

And they're off!

31. Tarantula (1955)
Dir: Jack Arnold
This film has a giant freakin' tarantula in it. I remember watching it on the late night monster flick show with my pops back when I still wore footie pajamas. Is it good? I guess not. Is it important? Well, since it started my love affair with creature features, monstrous movies, and fright flicks, then, yeah, it's important to me. (Strangely, the strictly workman director Jack Arnold appears on my list twice.)

30. Les Revenants (2004)
Dir: Robin Campillo
Normally, I don't have no truck with ostentatiously displaying the un-translated title of a flick as a badge of my filmic coolosity, but in this case – where the English title is the clunky They Came Back - I'll make an exception. At the very cusp of a zombie pic glut, this quiet, somber, thoughtful flick re-invented the entire genre.

29. Frailty (2001)
Dir: Bill Paxton
A creepy and effective story about a family in the grips of religious mania – or are they really plagued by angels and demons? Think Jim Thompson's Exorcist.

28. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Dir: John McNaughton
Here's a little story about this nihilistic bit of work. When the filmmaker submitted Henry to the ratings board, it came back NC-17. Normally, when that happens, the board sends the filmmakers a list of what could be cut to achieve an R rating. No such letter came back with their film. They wrote the board requesting the letter. They were told that their film, which is actually light on explicit gore and sex, received the rating because of its tone and its attitude towards its subject, real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. There were no content cuts that could be made which would make the flick acceptable.

27. Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004)
Dir: Brett Sullivan
Fueled by the success of the Buffy television series, their was a slew of fright flicks that used monstrousness as a metaphor for the teen years (a pomo rehash of a crucial 1950s horror theme). The best of this lot was the teen-girl/werewolf flick Ginger Snaps. But, that perfectly acceptable film was topped by its inky dark sequel. That flick took the characters over the deep-end and took the monster/teen metaphor to it ultimate, grim conclusion. This flick combines genuine suspense with a sense of humor that is almost sadistic. Fuzzy head and hairy shoulders above the neo-slasher flicks that clogged the market at the time.

26. I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Dir: Jacques Tourneur
In '43, Val Lewton got the rights to a fairly stale series of non-fiction articles on voodoo. He wed the dry stuff to the plot of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and then handed it all to Tourneur. Sounds like a disaster in the making, but it ended up producing a remarkably effective and stylish fusion of melodrama and horror.

25. Nosferatu (1922)
Dir: F. W. Murnau
With a plot that streamlines Stoker's novel to essentials (while keeping the best bi, ignored by most adaptations: the scenes on the ship) and monster make-up that is still instantly recognizable, this film is one off the foundations of modern horror cinema – and I dig it.

24. Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
Dir: Herschell Gordon Lewis
I'm not a big gore for gore's sake type of horror fan, but there's something about this Southern revenge fantasy/cannibal flick that warms my sesch heart. As an aside, I actually watch this flick and ponder if, through a display of mad endurance, I could survive any of the traps in it. Which brings us to . . .

23. Saw (2005)
Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman
Unjustly shares the blame for the brief mainstream interest in "torture porn" with the justly maligned Hostel. What set Saw apart was its genuine dramatic tension, the fact that the protagonists in Jigsaw's traps might, in fact, escape by something other than the ghost-in-the-machine intervention of the director. This real tension made it something more than a straight up endurance test.

22. House of Wax (1953)
Dir: Andre De Toth
This could have been any of a hundred Vincent Price films. On my right arm is a tattoo of the "devil," though, really, it is just a stylized portrait of a young Vincent Price. That's why this movie is on my list.

21. The Hitcher (1986)
Dir: Robert Harmon
C. Thomas "Tommy" Howell, the same year as his famous blackface role in Soul Man, went up against Rutger "I'm Creepy" Hauer (his mom actually gave him that nickname – true story, swear to God) in this mean-spirited little flick. Basically, the road film as nightmare. Has one of the greatest "no they didn't" moments in '80s horror.

20. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dir: Robert Wiene
Possibly the most famous of all silent horror flicks. The amazing set design and circular plotting continue to inspire.

19. Devil's Backbone (2001)
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Before Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro shot this haunted house tale featuring children trying to make sense of the Spanish Civil War. I might be alone in this, but I actually thing this beats Pan. It is more thoughtful, better looking, and scarier.

18. Godzilla (1954)
Dir: Ishiro Honda
The big rubber lizard's first outing is actually a surprisingly effective film. Even setting aside the obviously political overtones, the images of Tokyo's destruction are haunting. If you haven't seen the original Japanese version, I recommend it highly. It's a real eye-opener.

17. Freaks (1932)
Dir: Tod Browning
An elaborate form of career suicide – the director of Dracula followed up that smash hit blockbuster with a flick so controversial that is pretty much eighty-sixed his Hollywood success story. Built around a melodramatic carny suspense story, the real draw of this flick is the live sideshow performers who fill out the cast. In an age of CGI and larger than life special effects, there's something magnetic about this strange little flick.

16. Häxan (1922)
Dir: Benjamin Christensen
Intended as a documentary proposing a psychological cause for the witchcraft trials of Europe and colonial America, Christensen's imagination and runaway talent got the best of him and he ended up making a film that transcended his pedagogical aims. This trippy flick was fave of the French Surrealists and was later remade with narration by William S. Burroughs. And amazing and often overlooked gem from the early days of cinematic horror.

15. 28 Days Later (2002)
Dir: Danny Boyle
I should probably hate this flick for rejuvenating the zombie genre and, therefore, being directly responsible for the fact that we've had to wallow in cut rate zombie flick crap for half a decade now. But who can stay mad at you 28 Days Later? Since it is bound to come up, I prefer the American ending.

14. Susperia (1976)
Like some gorgeous foreign supermodel you meet at a bar, Agento's flick is beautiful, stylish, and completely incomprehensible. Though you know that it isn't going anywhere, you buy the drinks and hang out anyway – after all, how often are you around such hotness?

13. Alien (1979)
Do you go with Alien or Aliens? A tough call, especially as I dig the "army versus monster" subgenre of horror. But, in the end, the first film shows more flair and visual style. Plus, the original's claustrophobia is simply more frightening.

12. The Thing from Another World (1951)
Dir: Christian Nyby
Archetypal '50s creature feature. Even if the rumors that Howard Hawks directed most of this flick aren't true, you can feel is influence throughout.

11. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Dir: Edgar Wright
In a sane world, folks would have seen Shaun and realized that there was simply no point in continuing to make zombie flicks.

10. Frankenstein (1931)
Dir: James Whale
Part off the Class of '31: American horror's watershed year. I know that critical conventional wisdom holds the sequel Bride to be the better flick, but I stand by the iconic original. Whale's film didn't so much adapt Shelly's novel as it distilled it to primal basics – and it retains that raw and savage grace that is at the root of its continuing attraction. I should point out that the brilliant Dwight Frye, who plays Fritz the lab assistant, appears twice on my list (see Dracula). Frye's deliciously unhinged performances always please.

9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Dir: Jonathan Demme
"You know what you look like to me, Clarice? With your good purse and your bad shoes? You look like a rube."

8. The Haunting (1963)
Dir: Robert Wise
Just two years after West Side Story and one year before The Sound of Music, the peripatetic Wise squeezed in a black-and-white adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting off Hill House. Pauline Kael (who would later lose her job at McCall's for completely thrashing Wise's Sound of Music) held up this brilliant flick up as an example of what smart, adult, complicated horror could be. Is the best example of the "they can't hurt you, but can scare you into hurting yourself" subgenre of ghost story.

7. Psycho (1960)
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Because a boy's best friend is his mother.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dir: George Romero
Later, the shambling zombie stars of Romero's Dead franchise would nearly vanish under the weight of Romero's increasingly ham-fisted political allegories. But this first flick manages to pack in scares and insight by allowing the story to unfold without overt moralizing or speechifying. This is an almost perfect horror machine, a simple and hellish tale told with brutal efficiency.

5. Dracula (1931)
Dir: Tod Browning
Browning might deserve some sort of an award for being the worst director to mange to create timeless films. Never fully comfortable with sounded and hobbled by a stagy and static film sense (see the simultaneous Spanish production for a Dracula produced my a more talented and innovative director), Browning none the less managed to permanently rework Bram Stoker's novel, making sure everybody thought of Bela Lugosi the moment the name Dracula was uttered. Though the scary edge may have long dulled on this classic, it continues to have a sort of lavish, dream-like pull on the imagination.

4. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Dir: Jack Arnold
No sane wannabe arbiter of cinematic quality has any right placing Creature so high up on their list; but, well, screw that. This is my list, not your list. Get your own list if it means so damn much to you. Great monster design, a wonderful fusion of horror and sci-fi tropes, some near flirtation with environmental themes, a classic "trapped" plot, and wonderful cheesy 3-D effects. Even I, Lucas, cannot resist the Fish-Man's film.

3. Jaws (1975)
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Though elitist film-buffs and critics may now turn their noses up at the thought of Spielberg, Jaws used the then-young filmmakers storytelling talents perfectly. Editor Verna Fields also gets credit for teaching the fledgling filmmaker that teasing us with the sight of "Bruce," rather than revealing the shark immediately, was the way to go.

2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir: Tobe Hooper
This remains the only real must-see in the long and disappointing career of Tobe Hooper (assuming the Poltergeist was, in fact, the work of Spielberg). But still, if you're only going to have one film, this is a hell of flick to have. The verité-feel and sun-bleached look of the flick are perfect for framing this bloody and surreal tale that Hooper tells with a dead-pan tone that just heightens the horror. The workman-like manner with which Leatherface gets about his grim deeds still gives me the shivers. Later remakes missed the point when they drenched the film in shadows and other conventional spookshow trappings. What made TCM so T was the fact that is all seems to happen in these sun-baked open plains.

And, finally, drum roll please . . .

1. The Shining (1980)
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Perhaps the greatest counter-argument to the lazy chestnut that "books make bad movies" this side of The Godfather. Though Kubrick was probably intellectually slumming it, he brought his A-game and dedicated his relentlessly precise brand of film craftsmanship to a genre that's too often home to half-talented hacks. Case in point, the scene where young Danny is riding his big wheel through the hotel and runs into the ghostly daughters of the previous caretaker. Though everybody remembers the ominous sound of the wheels as the alternate from hardwood floor to carpet, what most people don't realize is that the cycle of sound gets shorter and shorter until we finally meet the daughters. It is a subtle, tension-building countdown. That sort of insane attention to detail makes this one of the most meticulously constructed horror films ever. And it pays off. The Shining is scary.

Whew. That's something you can only do once a year.

A big ANTSS thanks all the readers – especially the Screamin' regulars: cattleworks, Sassy, Heather, spacejack, and dave. And thanks to the wifey, who actually hates horror films with a passion, but puts up with my crap because she's amazing like that.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Meta: Tomorrow, tomorrow . . .

I hope you've enjoyed the first ever series here on And Now the Screaming Starts. Let me know if you'd like to see more silent flicks, or series, or movies with William S. Burroughs narration, or whatever it is that floats your boat. I just want to hear from you. Would it kill you to write your friendly neighborhood blogger now and then? Would it? I'm worried sick about you.

Tomorrow, dear Screamers and Screamettes, marks the big one-year anniversary of And Now the Screaming Starts. In the course of a single year, we've been through a lot together. We've laughed and we cried. There have been contests and reviews, jokes and hatchet jobs. We started this blog as mere boys (unless you were a girl, which is none of my business, really) and we reach this milestone as men (unless you're a woman, but, again, that's between you and your gender and is none of my bee's wax).

So, just how do we celebrate the anniversary of a blog that has given so much and never, ever asked for anything in return?

Well, my loyal screamin' horde, sometimes the answer is thrust upon you.

In the comments to my review of Haxan, the last in our Silent Scream Series, I got this invite from one Ed Hardy, Jr., movie-buff extraordinaire:

Sorry, this has nothing to do with this post. But I wanted to invite you and any other interested parties to submit a nominating list to Shoot the Projectionist's survey of the 31 GREATEST HORROR FILMS, to be published on Halloween.

Here's a link to the original announcement:

Click upon this very link to be magically transported to your destination!


What better way to cap of a year of horror blather than a bit of ol' fashion canon creation?

Calm down, folks. We won't be making a weapon of mass destruction.

Instead, we'll be rolling out the Official ANTSS 31 Greatest Horror Flicks of All Freakin' Time.

See you tomorrow, fright fans. You could miss it, but then you'd like totally suck.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Silent Scream Series: What the Häx?

According Casper Tybjerg, the scholar who provides the DVD commentary for Criterion's excellent edition of Häxan, the film once induced something like Stendhal Syndrome in a viewer. In 1941, during the film's commercial re-release in Sweden, police found a man roaming around outside the theater, hands held out before him, dazed, and gasping for air. The police assumed he was drunk. The man was taken to the hospital where he was treated until normal breathing returned. There, the medical staff determined that the man had not been drinking. The patient indicated that the attack – his stunned shock-like state and his shortness of breath – had been induced by watching Häxan. He'd simply been overwhelmed by the film.

This wouldn't be the first or last time Häxan was equated with extreme mental states. The film became popular among the surrealists who dug on its heavy anti-clericalism (than, as now, there's no better way to easily secure your artistic status as groundbreaking than by spicing your work with a dash of the ol' anti-Christian themes) and special effects, which brought the dream-like confessions of those accused of witchcraft to life. Later, in the 1960s, an English-language re-release featured the drone/drawl narration of that elder statesman of altered states: William S. Burroughs.

Until you've seen Häxan, it sounds itself a bit like the subject of a horror movie: an obscure silent film that has obtained fetish-object status among the outsider class and has the power to render people temporarily insane. That's quite a reputation to live up to.

Well, Screamers and Screamettes, while I didn't go stark raving mad, nor was I convinced to shoot my wife and flee to a life of drug induced creativity, I am now convinced that Häxan is among the greatest silent films ever made.

Häxan is supposedly a documentary. It was intended to advance the theory that the witchcraft prosecutions of the Middle Ages were caused by a mass outbreak of hysteria, further fuelled by religious intolerance that convinced otherwise good people that the more abhorrent crimes are justified in the defense of Christianity from an enemy that could be anywhere, do anything, and take any form. However, it is the dramatic "re-creation" of a witchcraft trial and its fall-out that forms the core of the film. It's these scenes that one imagines the surrealists and folks like Burroughs thought was the good stuff. Here we get the phantasmagoric presentation of the visions of witchcraft hunters and the accused. There are scenes of torture (including one scene in which we break the fourth wall and one of the actresses, out of character, agrees to let the directors actually apply a thumb-screw to her), erotic fantasies, images of monks scourging themselves, and so on. Unlike, say, The Crucible, which used the a Salem witchcraft trial as a ham-fisted and ultimately unsatisfying metaphor for the Red Scare, the witchcraft trial presented in Häxan is meant to illustrate the methods and typical progress of a trail. In this, it feels less like piece of propaganda (though even the film's creator cleared intended it so) and more like some weird, nightmarish, Medieval version of Law and Order. With its mix of detailed realism and precise attention to the dreams and visions of its main characters, to get an equivalent, you'd have to imagine somebody turned Pan's Labyrinth into a police procedural.

Given the unwieldy mix of fact and fiction, and the forced marriage of dramatic and propagandistic purposes, it is no surprise that some of the sections of the film fall flat. It gets off to a slow start as the director walks us through the cosmology of the Middle Ages. The models he uses here to illustrate his point are interesting, but don't hold the attention like the trial sections do. Also, at the end, when Christensen attempts to generalize he thesis to modern times, his political aims are at their most naked and the film's artistic power suffers for it.

Still, even with those weak spots, Häxan is a unique and powerful film. Though it isn't as famous as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the two bedrock works of cinema horror, it is, I think, more artistically accomplished than either of those films. If the Silent Scream Series gives you the bug to check out a silent film, make it this one.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Meta: A death in the family.

All good things must come to an end, Screamers and Screamettes. It is with a heavy heart that I announce that sidebar-icon and gay-horror info site Camp Blood seems to have called it a night. Good luck and Godspeed, you noble purveyor of all things queer and horrific!

As a tribute, here's the just shy of 10-minute teaser for Camp Blood, the slasher musical. Fright fans, the cheese factor on this little clip is just shy of "epic." (For those still at work, watch out for suggested sex, dirty language, and garden tool related death.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Silent Scream Series: Seven things about the 1920 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

1. The first version of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous short story was destroyed in manuscript. His wife read it, was horrified by it, and consigned it to the flames of their family fireplace. Though we have nothing of this original left, we know that the story differed from the current version in that Hyde was not a second personality created through scientific misadventure, but simply an alter ego Jekyll consciously and deliberately assumed in order to do evil. Stevenson's wife reportedly felt that the duality of the main character, without the inclusion of the plot device of scientifically induced MPD that basically lets Jekyll off the hook for Hyde's behavior, was beyond the pale.

2. Punching Jekyll's name into imdb gets you nearly 60 film adaptations of Stevenson's story, including oddball variants like the 1915 silent film gender-swapped variant Miss Jekyll and Mistress Hyde, the driver-safety instructional film Gentleman Jekyll and Drive Hyde, the Spanish trash flick Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman, the transsexual Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical, and, of course, the obligatory Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson's tale is so popular with film producers that three different versions of the tale were released in 1920 alone: two live-action versions and one animated adaptation that starred a ten popular comic strip character called Mr. Zip.

4. John Robertson's 1920 adaptation, starring John Barrymore a the titular protagonist, is not only one of the best versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it stands up as one of the best horror flicks made in the silent era. This is in no small part due to the excellent performance of Barrymore. John, yet another of the legendary Barrymore acting clan (his brother Lionel appeared previously in the Silent Scream Series in the flick The Bells), was nicknamed "The Great Profile" for his stunning good looks. At the height of his career, he was the most recognized and bankable actor in film and on stage. He famously quipped that he liked being introduced as America's foremost actor: "It saves the necessity of further effort." Unfortunately, he fell victim to the tendency towards hard living that was popularly known as "the Barrymore Curse." When asked about his acting, John answered, "There are many methods. Mine involves talent, a glass, and some cracked ice. His playboy lifestyle wrecked his health and looks and, after a film career that began in 1912, he closed out his career almost 30 years later drunkenly playing drunken parodies of his drunken self.

5. A key scene in any Jekyll/Hyde flick is the transformation scene. Often, this scene is a showcase for the make-up and special effects crews. In this film, Barrymore manages to pull off the first transformation scene without the aid of special effects or facial make-up. In one long take, Barrymore just acts the crap out of the scene, contorting his classically handsome mug into the disturbing visage of Mr. Hyde. It is, to this day, an excellent scene – as believable and effective as anything cooked up by later make-up and effects artists. The only make-up Barrymore uses in this scene is a pair of prosthetic hands, giving him inhumanly long, slender, claw-like fingers. Similar fake mits were later used to great effect by Max Schreck as Orlok in Nosferatu.

6. One of the more amazing scenes in the Barrymore's Jekyll and Hyde involves a Jekyll laying in bed, staring at the roof, pondering his rapidly disintegrating grasp on the direction of his life. Suddenly, from behind the bed, crawls a large creature: half giant tarantula, half Hyde. The creature crawls to the foot of the bed, climbs on top of Jekyll, and then fuses with him. This causes him to transform into Hyde. Like Barrymore's first transformation, this scene still holds up remarkably well.

7. The Alpha Video release of the film suffers from a poor picture and a lousy soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack is so intrusive and mismatched that I eventually just turned the volume all the way off. Another curious feature of the Alpha Video release is the presence of several different styles of title cards, revealing the multiple film sources Alpha needed to splice to recreate the entire film. There are at least three distinct source films for Alpha's version. Unintentionally, this recreates one of the more interesting aspects of watching silent films now versus how they were viewed back in the day. Unlike modern films, films in the silent era were constantly cut, re-cut, and edited. Between releases, studios would change title cards, remove entire scenes, splice in establishing shots from other films, and even cut longer features into several shorter films (D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance was cut into three shorter films for one of its many re-releases). In extreme cases, studios would create entire short films by splicing together fragments of older works. You can see "Boo," a nonsensical short made in just such a manner, in the Universal Frankenstein Collectors Edition boxed set. Studios weren't the only ones taking scissors to the films. Local exhibitors and censorship boards would cut films up, either to adjust running times or excise naught bits. Consequently, during the silent era, the Jekyll and Hyde you saw in New York was probably not the same Jekyll and Hyde you saw in Buffalo. The strange patchwork feeling of the Alpha video release actually captures something of the experience film-goers must have had at the time, watching flicks stitched together by a mix of pros and local yahoos.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Silent Scream Series: The look of love.

Ernst Lubitsch is famed for his classy, mature, controlled, and perhaps slightly cynical comedies. Films with "the Lubitsch" touch include Heaven Can Wait, To Be or Not to Be (perhaps the funniest film ever made), The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka (with its famous "Garbo laughs" tagline), and Trouble in Paradise. Collectively, these landmark films secure Lubitsch's rep as one of film's greatest directors.

But as this is And Now the Screaming Starts, we won't be talking about the cinematic masterpieces that elevated Lubitsch to the status of filmmaking titan. Instead, Screamers and Screamettes, we'll be exhuming Lubitsch's first feature film: an obscure horror lemon titled The Eyes of the Mummy - an inspirational little obscurity that proves even the truly great have to start somewhere.

Shot in 1918 for Germany's Projektion-AG Union (two years before PAGU brought out the silent horror classic The Golem), The Eyes of the Mummy begins with a lone white explorer trudging through the Egyptian desert in his best colonial dress whites. He encounters a beautiful young local girl, played by silent film hottie and Lubitsch regular Pola Negri, fetching water from a well. Their eyes meet. And cut . . .

. . . to the crowded porch of first class hotel in Egypt. Touring Euros lounge about soaking up the exotic scenery. One of the tourists, a prince no less, asks to be taken to the tomb of Queen Ma. Locals tell the Prince to forget it. Everybody who visits Ma's tomb ends up in a bad way – then they point to the explorer from the opening scene, now an invalid under the care of a nurse. The Prince decides to explore somewhere else, but the rumors of a curse catch the attention of a vacationing artist, Albert. Al finds a guide to take him to Queen Ma's tomb, where he finds Negri's character and "Radu the Arab," played in blackface by Emil Jennings (last seen on this site in the silent flick Waxworks). Radu and Albert scuffle and Al delivers the beatdown. With Radu now semi-conscious, Negri's character explains that Radu kidnapped her long ago and has kept her in Queen Ma's tomb. Al and the girl now somewhat inexplicably called Ma (though, I assume, she's not the dead queen) head back to civilization, leaving Radu for dead in the desert. Al decides to take Ma back to Germany as his new girlie.

Fortunately for the plot, the vacationing Prince finds the near-dead Radu. Radu, as is the custom of third-world folks in films, promises to serve the Prince forever. Thrilled to have a new servant so cheap, the Prince takes Radu back to the Germany with him.

Back in Germany, Al holds a coming out ball for Ma. After some social awkwardness, Ma blows high society away with a sultry dance (which, to this viewer, seemed a little more goofy than sultry, but whatever floats your boat) and she gets a gig doing this exotic little number at a local music house. As luck would have it, Radu happens to be attending her debut as the manservant of the Prince.

Obsessed with revenge, Radu contrives to get Al out house. He then breaks into Al's mansion and attempts to stab Ma. Ma, overcome with fear, faints and falls down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck. Radu, on seeing his dead slave/lover crumpled at the bottom of the stairs (see image above), is overcome with guilt. He carries her body to the couch and then stabs himself in the heart. Enter Albert, who throws himself on Ma's corpse. A title card coldly tells us that "It's too late!" and, then, "The End."

Weirdly, there's actually a second way to view the movie. Though I can't tell whether this is the product of sloppy storytelling or an intentional bit of narrative slight-of-hand. Ma's story about being a captive doesn't seem to hold together well. We see her out alone, by herself, at the beginning of the flick. Later, when Al approaches the tomb, we see her outside the tomb, talking to Radu, both of them acting conspiratorial. If one decides that the cards represent Al's mistaken notions of what's going on, then you get an interesting gloss on the whole plot. Basically, Ma and Radu are lovers that have been luring victims to the cave. Albert overpowers Radu and Ma, left alone, cooks up an alibi that makes her look like Radu's victim. Then Radu's revenge makes more sense as he's not angry at Al for stealing his girl, but angry at Ma for betraying him. Like I said, you've got to decide that the title cards are red herrings to read the flick this way; but once you've made that leap, it all sort of holds together. It even adds a bit to the story, giving the whole tale a "colonial's misunderstanding of the native scene" theme that gives the story extra dramatic weight. This would almost threaten to make the movie interesting. Almost.

Even if the whole "hidden" plot is true, it doesn't cover up the fact that the film's a bit of a clunker. The whole mummy's curse thing gets buried in the absurd plot. Much of the acting is clumsy (with the exception of the oddly suggestive acting of Jennings and Negri). Visually, the film's inert. Without snappy dialog to help him, Lubitsch touch doesn't amount to much. Finally, the DVD edition I saw, from Alpha Video, has a washed out, un-restored print and an original soundtrack that is distracting and repetitive.

All in all, Eyes of the Mummy is little more than a cult curiosity best suited for those interested in what is often claimed to be the first mummy flick or those who want to see early work from Lubitsch. Otherwise, like the Prince, take the warning and stay away.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Silent Scream Series: Hell's bells.

Welcome back, Screamers and Screamettes. This the third in ANTSS's special anniversary series looking at the primordial beginnings of fright flicks.

Today's soundless screamer is 1926's The Bells. Produced by the long defunct Chadwick Pictures Corporation (the company that produced the first adaptation of Wizard of Oz back in 1925) and helmed by silent film actor turned director James Young, this melodramatic suspense flick stars Lionel Barrymore – great uncle of Drew and member of the famed and infamous Barrymore clan – and features, in a small but noteworthy part, Boris Karloff. It was Karloff's 31st film in a career of more than 200 film roles – almost 40 films before Frankenstein – people cranked 'em out back then.

This whole thing starts a little soap opera-like, so those who have trouble keeping up might want to bust out a not pad or something.

Barrymore plays Mathais, a tavern and mill owner in a small European mountain near the base of what the title cards inform us is Mount Snowtop. I think that's near Running Water River just a-ways down Supports Traffic Road. Mathias is a nice enough guy. He likes to be liked by the townsfolk and he's hoping to be appointed Burgomaster. That's Austrian for "Master of the Burgo," or "mayor." To ensure he's got the popular support, he quick to extend credit and always ready to float tavern regulars a few free drinks. This drives his penny pinching wife and his father-in-law, the manager of Mathias's mill operation, crazy. It has also driven Mathias's family in debt. The man who holds Mathias's markers is Frantz, the village a-hole played to thuggish perfection by the unlikely named Gustav von Seyffertitz (a silent era character actor who you might recognize from Son of Frankenstein and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). Frantz, being the village a-hole, let's Mathais know that he'll forget the debt if Mathais will arrange a marriage betwixt Frantz and Mathais's lovely daughter, the cutie-patootie Annette. But Annette's already got her heart set Christian, the new sheriff (or gendarme, as the Europeans like to call their new sheriffs) in town.

The domestic story takes shape over the first half hour or flick or so, then we come to our first set piece: the Carnival. The town throws a big party and Mathais, eager to take his mind off his worries, joins the partying crowd. There, among the various tent shows, is Boris Karloff as "The Mesmerist" – in costume and performance a clear lift from Caligari, the mad doctor of Cabinet of fame. After performing a few tricks, the Mesmerist offers to hypnotize Mathias, telling the audience that, once hypnotized, good men tell of their good deeds and bad men confess their crimes. Mathias is not down with that, so he breezes on to the fortune-teller's tent. Though that goes all pear shaped on Mathais when, on viewing his palm, the fortune-teller recoils in horror, refuses to tell him what's in his future, and refunds his money. Mathias should have known the moment a carny gave him his money back, that something was very amiss.

Jump to Christmas: Mathias, increasingly in debt, throws a party for the tavern regulars. At this party, Christian the cop proposes to Annette and there is much marry-making. Into this boisterous Christmas party wanders a traveling Jewish merchant who is looking to spend a few minutes out of the brutal storm raging outside. Mathais welcomes him in and, eventually, they end up the last men standing of the party. Several sheets to the wind, Mathias learns that the merchant is wearing a money belt full of gold. Shortly after the merchant leaves, the drunk and debt-ridden Mathias bundles up, grabs an axe, takes a shortcut to incept the merchant, and kills him for his gold.

Mathias ends up passing his sudden windfall of an inheritance from a rich uncle and pays of Frantz. But his problems are far from over. He is soon haunted, literally, by what he's done. As he was giving the merchant the business end of his axe, the merchant shook the bell-bearing reins of his horse. That sound haunts Mathias, like the heartbeat in Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. He's also haunted by visions of his victim, sulking around like a Hebraic Banquo whenever company shows up. To add to these worrisome events, the merchants brother shows up looking for the murderer – and he's brought the Mesmerist with him!

As much a domestic melodrama as it is a ghost tale, The Bells is effective entertainment if not always creepy. The exception to this being Karloff, who actually makes a better Caligari as a rip-off than the original did. This is a very minor role but Karloff fans will want to check it out. The style of filmmaking is interesting. The film makes numerous nods to German Expressionism, all while assimilating it into the effective and non-intrusive film narrative film vocabulary that is identified as American and is so universal that we tend not to think of it as an expression of artistic talent and intent. This is a solid flick on its own and a special treat for those who want to see early Karloff at work.

As an aside, the Image disc twins this flick with the French short film The Crazy Ray, an early sci-fi film about a group of air-travelers who arrive in Paris only to find everybody is frozen except them. This short has some amazing shots – especially of the group wandering through a deserted 1920s Paris. Some of the plot devices are contrived, but several scenes pack an uncanny punch. If you end up checking out The Bells, do yourself the favor and take a peek at the The Crazy Ray too.

NB: The disc cover makes the claim that the flick was inspired by a Poe poem. As far as I can tell, this is untrue. The film is an adaptation of a stage play, which was actually made into a movie several times during the silent era. Several Poe works did get turned into silent films – "The Fall off the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado," "William Wilson" – but this is not one of them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Silent Scream Series: The first filmed Frankenstein.

UPDATE: The broken link to the film has now been fixed. Sorry about that.


Welcome, fright fans, to the second installment of a litlle something something your host likes to call the Silent Scream Series, a fan's tour of the roots of horror cinema.

Today we've got something extra special . . . read on, fright fan, read on.

For me, the Holy Grail of silent film horror has always the Edison Company's 1910 film Frankenstein. This 15 minute flick, shot in New York City at Edison's studios, was the first adaptation of the Shelly classic that became one of the cornerstones of cinematic horror. Presumed lost for decades, the film was known only through indirect evidence. Edison created an advertisement that featured an image of the monster: studio regular Charles Ogle in a long wig, fright make-up, and a suit of rags - a look modeled on then popular stage adaptations of Shelly's novel. Edison also produced a mailer intended to assuage any fears exhibitors might have had that the film would upset their patrons:

To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.

Modern horror buffs also had a handful of reviews. The picture was, if these surviving reviews are typical, well-received by critics.

Sadly, because Edison Studios only struck about 40 prints of any given film, their survival rate was not great. Frankenstein was among those thought lost forever. In 1980, the American Film Institute declared Edison's Frankenstein one of the ten most "culturally and historically significant lost films."

What the AFI didn't know was that a single print had survived. In the 1950s, a Wisconsin film collector named Alois Felix Dettlaff Sr. purchased a stash of old films, of which Edison's Frankenstein was one. Dettlaff eventually figured out what he had in his possession and he's guarded it like a hawk. A DVD version of the film is available from Dettlaff's own production company – though I've never seen any copies for sale.

Happily, we live in the age of the Internet, were nothing stays safe and secure for long. Over on Google videos, you can catch the entire film for free. Check it out, Screamers and Screamettes.

Perhaps the coolest bit of this flick is the creation scene. Curiously, Edison, a name synonymous with electricity, did not have his Frankenstein create his monster by harnessing lightening – the method preferred by many later film Frankensteins. Instead, the monster is created in a vat of chemicals, its body slowly taking shape out of the mists rising from the cauldron. This special effect was created by building a model of the monster and then slowly burning it. The film was then run backwards, giving the illusion that the body was slowly materializing. It's pretty boss stuff as far as early SFX go.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Silent Scream Series: House of Wax, Version 1.0.

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes! Welcome to the very first post of ANTSS very first series: the Silent Scream Series. Let's get started, shall we?

If you were going to try to identify the place of birth of the modern horror flick, you could do a lot worse then proposing Weimar Era Germany. In little more than a single decade, between the German defeat in the first World War to the rise of the Nazis, German filmmakers produced a slate of horror flicks that remain the bedrock of cinematic scariness: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu, M, and dozens of others.

German filmmaking got off to slow start. Despite the efforts of native-born film pioneers, the German film market was dominated by foreign products: mostly from America and France. Native film efforts were also hampered by prevailing notions of what was and was not "proper" for Germans. Film's that did not mimic stage conventions or adapt "tasteful" literature were looked down upon.

World War I drastically changed this picture. Wartime conditions dried up the flow of foreign films to the market. Without the competition of foreign films, German filmmakers had a massive and completely captive audience. A national industry that had played third fiddle for a couple of decades was suddenly faced with supplying the demand of the entire nation. Unfortunately, this sudden rush of production did not seem to spur anybody to great creative heights. The movies of this era are often dismissed as shoddy works, full of wartime jingoism and lacking in any real sense of how film could differ from the stage. What the years of wartime isolation did do was create a truly impressive filmmaking infrastructure. When the war ended, Germany possessed several first-rate studios, a new class of filmmaking professionals, and a stable of nationally recognized performers (including several notable performers who, atypical of the time, were strictly film stars instead of slumming faces from the theater).

It was these conditions – the psychological impact of the war, the presence of the necessary production facilities, and the cultural freedom that marked the short lived attempt to establish a liberal democracy in German – that allowed for this creative explosion. The first film in ANTSS silent horror flick series is a product of this post-war boom in German film.

Waxworks, the 1924 film by Paul Leni and Leo Birinski, is a sort of sampler platter of German silent cinema. The film is an anthology piece. The framing narrative involves a young writer who is hired by the owner of an amusement park wax museum (which the English titles available on the Kino DVD set in Luna Park on Coney Island) to create background stories for his star attractions. With the museum owner's daughter looking flirtatiously over his shoulder, the writer sets down to work. What follows are three short films, each centered around one of the wax figures on display.

The first segment is a sort of fantastic comedy set around Harun al Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad during the 1,001 Nights era. This, the longest of the three films, uses Expressionist set pieces to create a Westerner's fantasy of the exotic Middle East. The plot involves a poor baker (same actor who plays the writer of the frame story) who, after his wife (the actress who plays the museum owner's daughter) catches the eye of the royal minister, concocts a plot to steal the Caliph's "wishing ring." While the baker contrives to steal the Caliph's ring, the Caliph – played by German film legend Emil Jannings – contrives to steal the baker's wife. Through a series of misunderstandings, the baker comes to think he murdered the Caliph. In the end, the quick thinking of his wife saves the day.

This first story is light fare. The fairy tale plot moves well enough, but never gets to deep or moving. Here the real star is the set design, which later informed Douglas Fairbanks's classic The Thief of Bagdad (itself the primary source of Disney's Aladdin). The city of Bagdad becomes a warren of tunnels and bridges, domes and surreally fake palm trees. The sets have a dream-like quality and, when the baker leads the royal guards on a chase through the town, they really come to life.

The movie takes a considerably darker tone with the second segment. Focusing on Ivan the Terrible, the movie looses all sense of humor. Where al Raschid is an absurd comedic figure, Ivan – played by Conrad Veidt, who was the sleepwalker in Caligari and, in a role better known to modern film fans, Major Strasser in Casablanca - is a sadist, vile character. The plot for this segment rambles about. We start with Ivan visiting his dungeons, where poisoned prisoners have hourglasses, timed to match the effects of their poisons, placed before them. They get to watch their remaining moments slowly slip away. Based on the suspicions of a royal advisor, Ivan decides that the royal poison-maker intends to do him in. As he leaves the dungeon, he leaves orders that the poison-maker is to be killed.

Ivan, having had enough poisoning for one day, then leaves to attend a wedding where he's the guest of honor. Fearful of his life, Ivan makes his host, the father of the bride, change outfits with him. Along the way, assassins mistaking the host for the Czar kill the host with an arrow to the heart. The death of the host would normal put the kibosh on a wedding party, but not when Ivan is present. He commands the wedding guests to continue with the party, making them dance and go through the motions of merrymaking, all while they sob over the dead host, whose body is left laying on the front steps with a big old arrow in it.

Deciding that he hasn't yet completely effed up the party, Ivan then decides to take the bride as his own mistress and orders the groom locked in the royal dungeon. Meanwhile, the poison-maker, knowing his own death has been ordered, writes Ivan's name on one of the hourglasses. While torturing the groom, Ivan's minions discover the glass and assume this means he's poisoned. Facing his own mortality, Ivan's brain snaps and he's reduced to a cackling idiot, endless turning the hourglass over and over in an effort to stay what he believes is his imminent doom.

The second segment is fairly nasty work, especially coming, as it does, after what is a very lighthearted story. Less visually thrilling then the first segment, the second segment emphasizes its brutal, relentlessly grim plot and relies on the acting of Veidt, who is brilliant as the mad dictator, to carry the tale. Ivan's bleak story is haunting and effective.

The final segment of the film brings us back to the framing narrative. The writer, who has now scribbled his way into the small hours of night, falls asleep at his writing desk. He dreams that the last of the wax figures – Jack the Ripper (identified as Spring–Heels Jack in the English title cards) – comes to life and pursues him and the museum owner's daughter through the now deserted amusement park.

This is the shortest of all the segments, but the film really pulls out all the stops for it. Expressionist set elements and trick photography are used to create one of the most distinctive chase scenes ever. In his classic critical work, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer said that the final segment "must be counted among the greatest achievements of film art." How them apples grab you, Bob? You can argue all you want with me. I'm just some blogger. But Kracauer's famous, so there you go.

Waxworks is a curious flick. The first segment is not really horrific, but the rest of the film is. The tone starts off light-hearted to the point of near goofiness, only to turn inky black in the second segment and stay that way. This would be less of an issue for horror fans if the first segment wasn't also the longest. I recommend Waxworks for those who dig the visual style of Expressionist works like Caligari or who want to get a sense of the range German fantasy films had at the time. Those interested more strictly in horror's roots might want to pass this house of wax by.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Meta: Contest winners and an up-coming series.

We have our winners for the Nightmare Factory giveaway.

Free comics are on their way to three Screamin' regulars: Screamin' Cattleworks, Screamin' Spacejack, and Screamin' Sasquatchan. You three cats have been solid supporters of the blog from the beginning and I thank you.

We also have two brand new faces in the winner's circle. Greetings and congratulations to Doug and Lady Tanya. Thanks for swinging by and I hope you enjoy your new books.

Thanks to all the readers who wrote in and thanks to Fox Atomic for the freebies.

Now that we've taken care of that, let's take A Moment for Us ™.

On September 25th, 2006, I started with this blog with a review of with a review of the z-grade Italian horror flick Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory. We are rapidly approaching And Now the Screaming Starts's one year anniversary. This is puts me into a nostalgic mood, so, as we lead up to the big day, I'll be launching a series on the beginnings of cinematic horror. Here at ANTSS, I'll be rolling out my first ever posting series: a collection of reviews of several silent horror flicks from the very early days of film. We'll hit the classics, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, as well as some of the less well-known proto-fright films. Ghosts, ghouls, and gremlins from the days when the only screaming you heard in the theaters came from the audiences.

Be there, Screamers and Screamettes, or be L7.

In the meantime, here's a bit of navel-gazing. I present the trailer for the flick that gives this little ol' blog its name:

Friday, September 07, 2007

Comics: Last call!

Alright, Screamers and Screamettes, I've got one – count it:one – hot little copy of The Nightmare Factory left to give away. And this one, dear reader, belongs to you! Yes, you!

You: "But CRwM, how do I claim this absolutely free copy of The Nightmare Factory, the excellent new horror anthology by Fox Atomic, adapting the weird tales of Thomas Ligotti and featuring the fine work of Ashley Wood, Ben Templesmith, and a host of other great writers and artists?"

CRwM: "Fear not. All you need to do is shoot me an email at crwm44@yahoo[dot]com. Next person to email me wins."

You: "That sounds easy."

CRwM: "It is."

You: "Why am I still reading this? I need to get a electronic mailing."

CRwM: "That you do, dear reader. That you do."

You: "Please quit writing dialog for me. I need to go."

CRwM: "Of course, sorry."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Comics: Give you nightmares. Free nightmares.

Maybe anthologies are the new zombies. Though we're hardly wanting for ghoul-oriented fare - Walking Dead from Image shambles on, Marvel's Zombies are coming back for their third mini-series, and so on and so on – it seems like the explosive growth of the trend is over, we're headed into the long-awaited retrenchment, and it is high time for something new.

Let me propose, dear Screamers and Screamettes, that the next BIG thing in horror comics is the antho. Hear me out. Several one shots and mini-series have already come out from Marvel: the mostly campy Marvel Monster Group comics and more serious Legion of Monsters one shots. Viper put out Sasquatch. The daddy of all antho comics, Tales from the Crypt, can be found back on the comic rack. Doomed, a sort of neo-Tales, has made it to its first collection. DC hasn't yet re-launched House of Mystery, but give it time – they've got the Showcase editions of the original up to the second volume and that's got to be tripping off some sort of alarm in accounts receivable.

Into this crowded and competitive marketplace steps the young, polymath upstart of the Fox empire, Fox Atomic, with their recently released The Nightmare Factory.

I'll be honest, I did not have high expectations for this book. Fox Atomic has already dipped its toes into the comics field: it released prequel tie-ins to 28 Weeks Later and The Hills Have Eyes 2, the former filling the space between the two zombie flicks and the latter providing some insight into the origins of the miner-turned-mutant franchise villains. I thought both efforts were middling outings that seemed too much like the marketing pieces they were intended to be. It was promising that this book had no clear flick tie-in; but you can't fault a twice-bitten dude for being a little gunshy.

To my pleasant surprise, The Nightmare Factory is freakin' fabulous. Fox Atomic has picked up some hints from the excellent Doomed and, like the student that has become the master, taken all they've learned a step further.

First, they swiped Doomed's line-up. The weirdly old-timey cover is the work of Doomed cover regular Ashley Wood and you can find the art of Doomed alum Ted McKeever within. After skimming some of the cream from Doomed they pulled marquee-name Ben Templesmith and Sandman vet Colleen Doran to art duties. That's a serious collection of fantasy/horror artists.

Next, they found primo source material and built the collection around it. Much the way Doomed maintains a coherent feel, despite the varied artist, by tapping the same authors again and again, The Nightmare Factory gives you the feel of a complete and unified work by concentrating on a single author: Thomas Ligotti. And, in choosing Ligotti, a cult figure who deserves greater recognition, NF actually outdoes its predecessor. Ligotti is a masterful practitioner of the "weird tale," part of the line of surreally existential horror writers who trace back through Bradbury (at his darkest), Lovecraft, and Poe. His works are darkly fantastic tales delivered with flawless precision of detail and control of tone. Wisely, instead of just handing Ligotti's work over to the artists, adaptation duties were handed over to Eisner winner Stuart Moore and vet horror screenwriter Joe Harris.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.

As you may or may not know, my wife is a bit of notable blogger in the world of book reviews, book retail, and the like. She was in communication with Fox Atomic about doing a Nightmare Factory-related Halloween event at the bookstore in which she works. The cats at Atomic asked if she'd be interested in doing a book giveaway on her blog. Horror's not her bag, so she sent them ANTSS-ward. Well, Screamers and Screamettes, her loss is our gain. First five fans to email your fave Screamin' blogger at CRwM44@yahoo[dot]com will receive a free copy of The Nightmare Factory. Is CRwM the most right-on reviewer ever? Is he utterly full of horse putucky? You make the call. Just shoot me an email with a mailing address and the book will be on its wicked little way. Free; gratis; like freesville, man. Can't beat that with a stick. Don't say your ol' pal CRwM never did nothin' for ya.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Book: Fire, bad. Context rich cultural history, good.

It could be reasonably argued that the nameless monster created by Frankenstein is the single most successful and important horror icon ever. Invented nearly a century ago by and unwed teenage mother, Frankenstein and his monster have become more than household names, they've become figures of speech basic to our way of thinking about science, ethics, and the boundary between the heroic quest for knowledge and the insane pride of playing God.

In her new Frankenstein: A Cultural History, Susan Tyler Hitchcock - whose previous books include cookbooks and a pictorial history of the University of Virginia – not only makes the case for Frankenstein's centrality as a modern myth, but argues that the original novel's complexities (often hollowed out by later novelistic and filmic adaptations and pseudo-sequels) are still fresh and crucial.

To make her case, Hitchcock gives readers a chronological look at what we might take to be key signposts on Frank's way to legendary status. She starts with the novel, takes us through various stage adaptations, and then details Frankie and the Monster's film careers (from horror icon to gag in Abbott and Costello flicks). After that, the Nameless Monster stomps his way through comic books, gets camped up for television, and, finally, becomes a metaphor so potent that the word "Frankenstein" was deliberately avoided by the Presidential Panel on Bio-ethics. The fictional character's name was deemed to carry too much cultural and emotional baggage.

In some ways, the validity of Hitchcock's observation about the universality of Frankenstein works against her project. Not only are Frankenstein and his beast incredibly well-known – so are many of the stories surrounding the monster's creation. Even somebody with only a middling interest in the famous novel probably knows the general outline of its origins: Shelley was in Geneva with her soon-to-be hubby, their controversial amigo Byron, and some other minor Romantic-Era hangers-on. To entertain themselves, a contest was proposed in which each of the folks at the party was to compose a "ghost story." The begins of Frankenstein start at that party. In fact, the story is so well known that the meta-story of the tale's creation has received (very loose) film treatment twice: once into the intro to The Bride of Frankenstein and again in Gothic.

While, in the name of completeness, Hitchcock needs to retread some well-worn ground, she manages to keep reader interest by liberally spicing her work with the sort of trivia fans of the world's most popular monster pick up such books for. For example, the Geneva home that served as the site of the now famous story writing challenge had previously housed John Milton – inventor of the first Byronic hero in the form of Satan from Paradise Lost. She also fills in gaps that my be missing from even the most dedicated Frank-o-phile's personal database. For example, her extended discussion of the original novels reception and the Monster's first appearance as a political metaphor (instead of being a symbols of science gone amuck, Frankenstein and his monster served Victorian politicians as shorthand for liberal ideologies that got out of hand) will be, I think, new to many readers.

While hardcore Frank-fans probably already have small libraries of books focusing on Hammer Studios' depiction of the monster or the life of Boris Karloff, I recommend this book broad scope. Good stuff.

Frankenstein: A Cultural History is due out in hardback this October – with a sweet collage cover of monster imagery, I should add – and we'll run you $25.95.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Stuff: Trade, if you dare!

If you've been in the market for a "possibly haunted animatronic display character," then you are in luck. Apparently, this dude bought a mechanical figure from a church basement sale. From his own description:

i call her “cherry girl”. i bought her many years ago at a church basement flea market for $15. she’s animatronic, sits atop a “chocolate drop”, and bends to place a large cherry on an imaginary cake when plugged in. my girlfriend thinks she’s EVIL and makes me hide “cherry girl” under the stairs. she say’s “that thing hates me” and “that thing cut my hand”…so it must go!

There's a catch, though. The old lady he bought her from said he can't sell her. He has to trade Cherry Girl.

Check out the craigslist post.